Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

The Child Labor in Your Valentine's Chocolate


Americans just love chocolate and certain times of the year that becomes very evident. Valentine’s Day is one of them. What many people don’t know is that those heart-shaped boxes of chocolate come at a steep human price.

Over 70 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from two West African countries: the Ivory Coast and Ghana. There are 1.8 million children working in cocoa production in both countries, and many are working under forced conditions, doing hazardous work. The amount of children working in West African cocoa production continues to grow, as a Tulane University report released in July revealed. The percentage of children working in cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast countries increased from 2008 to 2014. As of 2014, there were 2.03 million children found doing hazardous work in cocoa production in both countries.

What children working in cocoa production are required to do and are exposed to is heartbreaking. The Food Empowerment Project details the lives of children working in the cocoa sector. They work long hours, starting work early in the morning and finishing in the evening. They operate chainsaws to clear forests, climb cocoa trees to chop bean pods with a machete, carry sacks containing the pods on their back that weigh over 100 pounds and drag them through forests. They are exposed to hazardous chemicals and don’t go to school when working.

There is a simple reason why West African cocoa farmers use child labor. They don’t make much, so they can’t hire adults to harvest their crops, which, as the International Labor Rights Forum stated, “perpetuates the child trafficking and worst forms of child labor that have plagued the industry.” West African communities rely on cocoa farming to eke out a living, but the low prices they receive for their crops leave them with “impoverished incomes and with no choice but to pull their children from school and have them help on the plantation.” Cocoa farmers earn less than $2 a day.

In recent years there have been “significant investments in cocoa sustainability initiatives by the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in recent years,” according to a report by the World Cocoa Foundation. But despite those investments, “cocoa farming continues to face significant challenges.” The report cites increased competition from other cash crops, declining soil fertility and lack of knowledge of how to apply fertilizer among those challenges.

The reports of child labor in cocoa production have prompted lawsuits and consumer campaigns by non-profit organizations. Back in September, the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman filed a lawsuit in California against three big chocolate companies (Hershey, Mars and Nestle USA, Inc.) over the “practice of importing cocoa beans from suppliers who use child labor, including trafficked and forced child labor.” The lawsuit accuses all three of importing cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast and singles out the companies for their reliance on child labor to harvest the cocoa beans that make the chocolate that goes into its products.

Recently, both ILRF and Green America launched campaigns called “Have a Heart, Godiva.” The ILRF campaign points out that Godiva has “spent the past year exploring what sustainability means to the company and what a policy might look like” because of consumer pressure. Godiva has committed to a goal of 100 percent sustainability by 2020. However, the campaign points out that “there is no need to reinvent the wheel” as fair trade companies already source directly from cocoa farmers which increase the payments the farmers receive and improve working conditions plus help remove children from cocoa farms. The campaign specifically asks Godiva to create a “time-bound plan to action to trace its supply chain, prevent child labor and ensure cocoa farmers earn their fair share.”

The Green America campaign asks Godiva to only purchase cocoa third-party certified to be child labor free, create a specific timeline to achieve it, and give regular public updates. “This will assure your customers that you do not rely on the exploitation of farmer communities or forced child labor to produce your products,” the campaign proclaims.

Both campaigns highlight a simple reality: it's time for major chocolate companies to take steps that will remove child labor from the West African cocoa sector.

Ready to vote with your dollars? Buy Fair Trade. Here are 17 delicious options -- but really any brand will do! 

Photo: Flickr/Siona Karen

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman

More stories from Energy & Environment